Because I Hate Myself - Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Yes, it’s a trite phrase that’s certainly lapped the concept of cliché…but if anything cinematically were to perfectly illustrate this point, it is Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. While considered by nearly everyone as the nadir of the series, I have to admit that in rewatching the series that I have to disagree. Don’t get me wrong, the film is RIFE with problems…but honestly, I find Superman III to be a much worse film. Why? Waste. Superman III had the budget and support to do anything as equally amazing as the two films that preceded it…and what we got was total shit. Superman IV, on the other hand, was riddled with budget issues as well as having to overcome what was very much becoming a bad reputation on the heels of III. A film, championed by Christopher Reeve himself, that was intended to re-launch the franchise into a new direction, almost a new beginning…well…ended up being the final nail in the coffin. In many ways, Superman IV is a sum total of the damage Richard Lester inflicted on the series, even though he wasn’t associated with this production…he did lay the foundation upon which this film would be built upon…and to carry this analogy to its ultimate end, a foundation that is 1/3 sound, 1/3 okay but a little shaky and showing signs of decay and 1/3 complete shit…well, ultimately, anything built on that kind of foundation isn’t going to fare very well, now is it?
Strike one? The story. In short, due to rising tensions between the US and USSR, a child calls on Superman to do something about the rush toward Mutually Assured Destruction. Superman then addresses the UN to say that he’s going to destroy all the nuclear weapons in the world. Lex Luthor, on the other hand, not only seeks to aid the proliferation of these weapons, but also makes a twisted clone of Superman, Nuclear Man…his powers fuelled by the nuclear materials present at his birth and radiation from the sun. Let’s start with the core concept. I’ve heard it said by both Tom Mankiewicz and Mark Waid, “The reason you never write about a superhero confronting a contemporary issue is that when you wake up the next morning…the problem is still there.” And the story written by Chris Reeve, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal clearly breaks that rule. I get why they felt they had to do it, sure, it was the mid-80s and MAD was a very real threat. There were nuclear overtones to nearly everything back then…certainly it was a popular theme in 80s music. Now, to shift gears, to depict the world’s more realistic action had Superman actually done this…where nations of the world actually turn against him for weakening their national defense…that’s an interesting story…but ultimately one that’s out of character. Instead, what the film gives us is the UN delegates giving Superman a standing ovation for his pledge…and I cannot for the life of me EVER see that happening, not for something like this. Next up, we have what I’d almost call a victory lap. What I mean by this is that there are aspects from the three previous Superman movies all integrated into this one. It’s not quite as bad as say an anime ‘clip show’ that occurs generally mid-way through the series’ run…wait, actually, it does devolve to a clip show in some ways…but that falls more under the budget discussion that we’ll get to. But critics aren’t wrong for saying that there’s very little original here. Fighting a similarly powered menace? Superman II. Lex’s crazy schemes? Superman: The Movie. Smallville sequence? Superman: The Movie and Superman III. Revealing secret to Lois then removing the knowledge with a super-kiss? Superman II. And I could go on. In my opinion, however, this almost seemed more like a ‘this is where we’ve been, join us for something new next time!’ Thus my phrase ‘victory lap’. The problem with that is, quite simply, there wouldn’t be a next time until 2006. Lastly, like Superman III before it, the writers of Superman IV didn’t take into account the history of the character. When you’re dealing with a twisted clone of Superman, hmm…seems like they may have done that before…oh, yeah, Bizarro. Okay, I’ll admit, that’s not entirely fair as Rosenthal has commented that they were trying to figure out a way to use Bizarro…but that would’ve meant Reeve would have had to play two roles, requiring a pay increase for him. Um…no. Hire someone that looks roughly like him and throw some prosthetics on his face. Look at Bizarro, look at Superman. This is not a case of identical twins here…it’s a case of twisted clone. While there should certainly be a very passing resemblance, Bizarro is simply more of a monstrosity. But there are other avenues we can go down. Need a radiation themed Superman villain? How about the Atomic Skull? He’s been around since 1976. Need someone that can make Superman powerless? How about the Parasite? He’s been around since 1966. There’s no shortage in Superman’s rogues gallery…only the failure of the writers to plumb the depths to find what they need. Also, like Lester’s Superman II, we have a return of Superman displaying a telekinesis that he’s never had, whether its ringing a doorbell from across the room with a stern look or using ‘mortar vision’ to rebuild damaged sections of the Great Wall of China. As DC was putting forward the Man of Steel Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths relaunch that was depowering Superman to make him more relatable and more susceptible to danger, the last thing you want is a film depicting him with even more powers beyond the myriad that he displayed in the Silver Age.
Strike two? The tone. The film is very clearly geared toward children. That’s especially a problem because when the film was released in 1987, the comic book audience was in transition. We had entered the Post-Crisis, Post-Dark Knight and Post-Watchmen world. Superman IV continued to slip down into the juvenile trend started in III, but what he needed to do to stay relevant was evolve and, at the very least, recapture the all-ages tone of the first film. And it was certainly in the writers’ ability to do so. Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal wrote one of my favorite Star Trek films, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country which had very clear undertones of a post-Chernobyl USSR making the transition from Communism to Democracy and the end of the Cold War. Heady stuff for science fiction…and that headiness could certainly have been used here. In addition, definitely not helping matters is the fact that every single performance in the film grabs hold of this kiddie tone so earnestly and runs with it. Honestly, I’d love to see how someone under 10 years old would react to this movie, because, unfortunately, that’s the only audience it seems to be intended for. Further indications? Capes flapping in space, Lacey Warfield, at one point Nuclear Man’s hostage/love interest…because, you know, cliché…being completely unaffected by exiting earth’s atmosphere, and other violations of simple physics.
Strike three? Well, I’ve already mentioned it briefly…the budget. After Superman III and the failure of Supergirl, Alexander and Ilya Salkind sold the rights to the Superman movie franchise to Cannon Films, headed by infamous producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. The background, rise and fall of Cannon is depicted fantastically in the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. To give you a short version, they took the ‘throw anything to the wall and see what sticks’ approach to making movies…but unfortunately sunk so much money into films that ‘didn’t stick’ that when other films needed a larger budget to be successful, the money simply wasn’t there. And in that description alone, as well as what I’ve already hinted at in this review, you can see where this is going. While Cannon had had some success with action films, Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action movies and Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo films just to name a few, in addition to, of all things, Breakin’, Superman IV came as a chance to finally become a legitimate player in the Hollywood arena. Unfortunately, they didn’t necessarily understand what it took to make a film like Superman work. Yes, Cannon had done science fiction prior to this, most notably Lifeforce in 1985…but Superman IV in June of 1987 and Masters of the Universe in August of that same year…showed that Cannon’s pockets weren’t as deep as they needed to be for these sorts of productions, or at the very least, they weren’t that deep anymore. You have to admit that they at least had the right idea to get Harrison Ellenshaw to head up the special effects department for Superman. Ellenshaw’s resume includes Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, The Black Hole and Tron…so certainly not a slouch. But the effects in Superman IV were almost instantly dated due to the lack of money. A shot of Superman flying forward toward camera was reused an almost ridiculous amount in the film. Shots of Superman flying in the distance in outer space are clearly animated, a trick not used since the Kirk Alyn serials in the late 40s. And, yes, some of the wire-work is clearly visible. It’s almost Superman via Roger Corman, and that’s just…no. That just wasn’t going to fly…forgive the pun. Separate, independent evidence of these financial shortcomings comes from Gary Goddard’s production of Masters of the Universe, co-funded by both Mattel and Cannon Films. Mattel put up their half of the budget first and by the time that money ran out and Cannon was supposed to put up their half…well…turns out the money was slow to come, wasn’t the full amount agreed upon and ultimately, the movie had to be wrapped up very VERY quickly to accommodate this new lack of funds. And, kind of the biggest insult? The closing shot for both Superman I and II, where Chris Reeve is flying above the Earth, turns, smiles at the camera, then flies past was LITERALLY copy/pasted onto the end of this film…even though Reeve was visibly slimmer in this film than the previous Superman entries. It almost makes you wonder…what if Cannon had made Superman IV at the same time they made Lifeforce, which clearly had a budget able to support pretty decent quality special effects work.
Thematically, there is one positive thing I can say about the film…the subplot where The Daily Planet is taken over by a tabloid publisher that sets out to turn the newspaper into something more akin to The Enquirer or The New York Post is a good reflection of what was starting to happen to journalism back in the late 80s…and in some ways is still happening. Oh, one last positive thing…Superman actually gets into a fight. Sure, we caught glimpses of him tangling in Superman II…but not to the extent we see here and, honestly, it’s kind of a welcomed sight.
So if I’m only able to say one or two good things about Superman IV, why do I insist it’s the better film as opposed to being able to say a few nice things about Superman III? Well, as I already mentioned, Superman III was complete 80s excess. A waste. You have a talented cast and crew and a budget to do something amazing…and then you turn out crap? That’s the definition of a waste if there ever was one. Superman IV, however, was trying to do it’s very best with what little it had…and in some isolated scenes, you can almost feel the magic trying to return. The Smallville scenes come to mind in that regard. Second, I can’t help but get the feeling that in some ways, Superman IV was trying to turn into the skid and hoping to come out the other side fresh and reborn. Sadly, in this instance, steering into the skid simply meant crashing into the lamp post a whole lot quicker. Lastly, the old gang was back together with none of the drama that came under the Salkinds…and, for whatever reason, you could actually feel that in the film.
Superman IV would be Christopher Reeve’s last in the tights. Even had the film made some money and Cannon pushed forward with its plans to make Superman V, in comments that Reeve made either in his autobiography or to his fellow castmates, it’s clear that his disappointment in how Superman IV turned out hung like a pall over him. And I can’t say I blame him one bit. To go from the high that everyone spoke to in working with Richard Donner at the start of the film series, to the overly jokey Richard Lester to now, finally, this cheapened production where so much of the movie had to be ripped out due to lack of funds that it is wholly unrecognizable from the original idea? Granted the idea was flawed to begin with…but movies can survive a flawed central premise if there is spectacle to help overcome it. Sadly, Superman IV had neither…bringing the end to an era that is almost tragic, given its high-flying start.